Jane Steele: Retelling Gone Right

When I reviewed Eligible, I admitted that I didn’t like it, but I thought that retelling someone else’s story was hard. After reading Jane Steele, I might have to change my opinion.

The basis of any retelling is a “What if” question. Most authors ask “What if (insert classic story) took place in a modern setting?” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, most often it doesn’t do much for me. Lyndsay Faye asks, “What if Jane Eyre was a serial killer?”

A question that had never crossed my mind, but once it did, I had to know the answer. And that answer is Jane Steele. I have never been a big fan of Jane Eyre, partially because I don’t care much for Jane herself. I don’t know what it says about me that I liked her so much better as a serial killer, but I loved Jane Steele. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself in difficult situations, starting at a young age. When life gets hard, Jane Steele doesn’t fall apart, she finds solutions. Usually her solutions involve killing someone, but trust me, these people had it coming.

Mr. Rochester also gets a much needed upgrade in this retelling. Charles Thornfield loves his ward, is dedicated to helping his friends, and completely unperturbed by the fact that his governess can wield a knife and swear like a sailor. Sounds like my kind of guy.

Jane Steele is shipped off to boarding school, away from her childhood home of Highgate House, after her cousin dies. What no one knows is that Jane killed him. Accidentally, kind of. She pushes him into a ravine when he tries to rape her. She decides she is a wicked girl for killing someone and embraces her fate. She’s quite happy bypassing heaven as she’s told that her mother, a depressed widow who committed suicide, has no doubt been sentenced to hell.

With this rather inauspicious start to life, Jane finds herself in an abusive school, which leads her to London, which eventually circles her back around to Highgate House, where she plans to kill the man who inherited the house when her aunt died and so claim her own inheritance. There’s only one problem.

She really likes Charles Thornfield and his household. So do I. I’ve already hit Thornfield’s highlights, but the rest of his household is just as good. The most prominent features of this unorthodox English estate are the Sikh butler, Sardar Singh, who seems like a great guy but is obviously hiding something, and Sahjara, Thornfield’s ward who is delightfully wild.

Unraveling the mystery of this odd household becomes more urgent after Jane kills a nighttime intruder. The answers lie in the Sikh Wars in India, but Jane’s investigation is further hampered by Mr. Sam Quillfeather, an Inspector who may be able to tie Jane to at least three deaths.

Even more complications arise when Jane discovers that her aunt was not her father’s sister-in-law, but rather his legitimate wife. He married Jane’s mother under false pretenses with an assumed name.

To top it all off, Jane can’t just fall back on her usual method of un-complicating things, because she has fallen in love with Charles Thornfield and doesn’t want to admit to him that she is, in fact, a murderess.

The way Faye weaves all of these storylines together along with seamless character development makes for a very enjoyable read. The fact that Jane most often kills to protect other people makes her a downright heroic figure. The way the people around her react to her protection often made me judge them more than her.

If there was one thing I disliked about the book, it was the way Jane blamed herself for her cousin’s death. She saw that as her downfall from grace, when anyone else would clearly label it as self-preservation. But the book is redeemed when Jane finally comes clean to Thornfield about the people she has killed and he quickly sets her straight on her view of herself.

Jane and Thornfield’s relationship is everything a literary romance should be. They are remarkably well suited for each other, becoming good friends rather quickly. Their banter is endlessly entertaining, and the obstacles to their relationship genuine problems and not contrived issues. It’s true strength is that the romance is not the center of the story, but rather a thread that runs underneath the plot and helps to tie it all together.

Not only did I love reading this book, I’m already looking forward to re-reading it. 5 out of 5 stars, no question.

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